Olympics: Boat Race glory beckons the Canadian who is world-famous for coming second

Olympic silver medallist beaten by Pinsent's coxless four talks to Christopher Dodd about Sunday's challenge
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Barney Williams was the most celebrated loser at the Athens Olympics. As stroke of Canada's world champion coxless four, he was closing in on Olympic glory when fate, in the shape of Matthew Pinsent, intervened. As it was, he found worldwide fame for coming second.

Barney Williams was the most celebrated loser at the Athens Olympics. As stroke of Canada's world champion coxless four, he was closing in on Olympic glory when fate, in the shape of Matthew Pinsent, intervened. As it was, he found worldwide fame for coming second.

You might think nothing would ever live up to that monumental finish, when Pinsent somehow drove Great Britain home eight-hundredths of a second ahead of the Canadians to win his fourth Olympic gold, but Williams thinks he might manage it on Sunday.

The 28-year-old Williams is now a law student at Oxford and is consumed not by what might have been in Athens, or future Olympic plans, but by the challenge of beating Cambridge in the Boat Race.

"This race is a spectacle, and people are going to be treated to something very special," he says. "I'm going to be remembered potentially for this race just as much as for the Olympics. There's honestly more power at Oxford right now than we had in Canada, and rowing with these guys is really exciting. Breaking one of these crews is going to be a real challenge."

Williams appears utterly unscarred by the disappointment of Athens. His reaction at the time said much for his strength of character. "I feel I did everything that I could," he said an hour after the dramatic finish, "and as a result I have everything to be proud of, the utmost respect for the competitors we raced. I believe the fact that we were part of one of the most exciting races possibly of all time is as stimulating to me as winning a gold medal by three or four seconds.

"People will be talking about how Matthew won his fourth gold medal, but they'll also be talking about how someone made it difficult for him... I'm very satisfied to be part of that race."

The contrast between the Olympic final and the annual University tussle on the Tideway is stark and Williams appreciates the differences. "In this race you are racing a ghost," he says. "In Athens we knew the Brits were going to be gods. We knew the crews were evenly matched and none of them would have said it's all going to be over in the first minute. That's why we rowed a set strategy.

"But here, we don't know what Cambridge will do, we really don't. We just know that they have an incredible amount of talent, they have a good coach, a track record of proven winning, so all those things add up. If we don't prepare to row off the opposition and they go guns a-blazing off the start with a killer 30 strokes, this race could be over in the first minute. There are days when I'm out there and I'm thinking I've got to push harder than I've ever pushed before, but I don't know what I'm pushing against."

Born in Argentina and raised on an island off Victoria, British Columbia, before his family moved to Toronto, Williams was a sports-mad child who played everything he could as a schoolboy at Upper Canada College. He was always fantasising about what he calls the "marquee events", like being on the 18th at Augusta or on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

When Williams, a lithe 6ft 4in, 14st athlete, realised that rowing was his calling, superseding basketball, football, ice hockey, golf and tennis, Pinsent was already making headlines, and became his first rowing hero. He returned to Victoria to read history at university, which was cheek by jowl with the national rowing centre under the charge of Mike Spracklen, the coach who launched Sir Steve Redgrave into orbit 25 years earlier.

Williams is one of three Olympians in the Oxford boat, while Cambridge boasts four, and he is keen to defend their presence in a Boat Race featuring only two undergraduates this year. "The number of graduates in both boats is quite shocking," Williams said. "But some of the graduate courses are more flexible with schedules so you can fit rowing in, and some of the undergrad courses here are so intense that it's very difficult for them to complete the training schedule, let alone to challenge these international imports who've already got years of rowing under their belt, have the base training, and can take hard work-outs without paying for it too much. I hope that that's offset by the talent and by the likelihood of a really, really spectacular race."

Oxford lost the race last year after getting a good start before being blamed for a clash which resulted in their bow man's seat jamming. They have named the same cox, Acer Nethercott, who steered that race and the 2003 race, which they won by a foot, but that is the only echo of the disaster.

Williams was not around then: "We all came in, the imports, newcomers, we hadn't been part of the build-up, part of the clash, part of the discussion, so we really had to form our opinions based on the opinions of the guys around us. To a man, everyone in the squad last year has said, 'It's behind us now, we lost the race, let's move on'. Sean [Bowden, chief coach] said point blank, look, even if the boats hadn't clashed, it appeared that Cambridge were the better crew, and a faster crew, so that just put the nail in the coffin. It meant if there was no clash, Cambridge would still have won, whatever."

Barney and his wife, Buffy, who is also an Olympic rowing medallist for Canada, and is studying sports medicine at Oxford, are enthralled not just by the rowing culture that they feel in the streets around the university, but by the theatre, music and the Union which compete for their time.

Used to an Olympic culture of eat, sleep and row, they are experiencing a completely different environment. "The challenge for the coaches is to balance the academics and athletics. If at any point it became clear that the athletic goals of an individual became paramount to those of their academics, the university would not be supporting the event any longer," Barney says. "There's set rules. You can't row between nine and one o'clock. As much as this is a very important race, it's a race for students, and students here are involved in tons of studies, so from that point of view I think they've done a good job."